If you ask John Cecala what’s new in portion control, he’ll give you an old answer – albeit a wise response that will always remain current. Take care of your customers, even through the most difficult times, says Cecala, principal and executive vice president of sales and marketing for Buedel Fine Meats and Provisions in Bridgeview, Ill., which services mostly foodservice operators.

Cecala says the company’s portion-control business has been challenged the past few years because of the sputtering economy, not to mention high beef prices. But the company’s business philosophy – “Looking out for your customers ahead of time and helping them make educated decisions,” Cecala says – has helped Buedel endure the rocky times.

“Now that the [economy] is getting better, we’re getting rewarded for those seeds we planted 12 to 18 months ago,” Cecala adds. “We’re exceeding our budget, and our business is growing tremendously.”

Lee Ann Kagy, president and CEO of A to Z Portion Control Meats in Bluffton, Ohio, couldn’t agree more with Cecala. When the economy got tough, Kagy didn’t get tough on the company’s customers, who she also knew were struggling economically.

A to Z, a nearly 70-year-old family business that prides itself on quality products, could have skimped on ingredients to save a few bucks at its customers’ expense, but Kagy didn’t dare do that.

“People do recognize quality when they taste it,” she says, noting that the economy still poses a challenge but business is improving. “When you start using lesser ingredients, you lose quality and consistency. We didn’t skimp on quality, and it has paid off.”

Portion-control trends

While exceptional customer service is a finite trend for processors like Buedel and A to Z Portion Control Meats, there are other progressions impacting their businesses.

Cecala has noticed three trends relative to portion control. One is restaurants and retailers are purchasing more locally produced products within 250 miles of their businesses, which has boded well for Buedel because it is in the heavily populated Chicago market.

“Buying local has become more commonplace in people’s language,” Cecala further explains. “We see a growing demand for our products because of that.”

Cecala says the 106-year-old company is also espousing the benefits of buying local from farm to fork. “It’s about sustaining the community,” Cecala says. “Companies like ours are local family run companies who help farmers bring their products to people they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”

The second trend – and it has been one for a while, Cecala admits – is the demand for all-natural and humanely raised products free of antibiotics and hormones. “But the noise on this is significantly louder than it has been in the past,” he adds.

The third trend is the increased demand for grass-fed beef, especially as burgers, which goes in hand with being locally produced and naturally raised, Cecala notes.

While they are trends, they have not become predominant, Cecala says.

“At the end of the day … [will these] trends ever become mainstream? I don’t know, but I can tell you they have become more important for us,” Cecala says.

Burgers, in general, have been big sellers while beef prices remain high, Cecala adds. Custom blends of burgers featuring, brisket, skirt steak, tenderloin and other beef cuts are gaining popularity.

“People will still go out to eat and pay $12 for a burger instead of $40 for a steak and still have a nice dinner,” Cecala says.

On the poultry side, Cecala says air-chilled chicken is an emerging trend even though it is more seasonal. Some processors say that air-chilled chicken retains its natural flavors and tastes better than conventional chicken. Cecala says many epicurean chefs prefer air-chilled chicken because they want to put something different and value-added on their menus.

There are other trends in portion-controlled chicken, including the move toward boneless wings, says Barney Seward, president of Country Gold Foods, a portion-control meat company in Parker, Colo.

At the beginning of the year, chicken wings cost about 80 cents more per pound than chicken breast. But that is changing, thanks to the popularity of boneless chicken wings in the marketplace, which are spurring the chicken-wing category’s growth.

Processors, taking advantage of inexpensive chicken-breast prices, used breast meat in their portion-controlled boneless wings. However, chicken-breast prices are on the rise at more than $2 per lb. But the expectation is that the demand for boneless wings will remain strong.

“That’s where the market is going in portion control – boneless wings,” Seward says.

Natural portion-controlled chicken breast is becoming a thing of the past because chickens are getting larger, Seward says.

“Nobody wants more than an 8-oz. breast, and most people want a 4- to 6-oz. breast,” Seward says.

That said, the increased demand for chicken tenders plays right into the equation because the tenders can be cut from the larger chicken breast.

Getting creative

As the boneless wing proves, a little creativity can go a long way in portion control. Kagy is well aware of that philosophy at A to Z.

A to Z has a flair for the creative and has established itself as a niche- product leader. One of the company’s most popular products is a pizza patty – a beef patty with pepperoni, mozzarella cheese and pizza seasoning inside of it.

“It’s a hit, especially with young people,” Kagy says. “It’s like eating a pizza on a bun.”

Another product mainstay is a large breaded pork product called the Big-T Texas Tenderloin, a 7.5-oz. pork patty that can be used for sandwiches and even substituted for pizza crust. The Big T has been around since the early 1970s. A concessionaire who originally made the product by hand asked Kagy’s father Robert Bender, who founded the company, if he could mass produce it.

“My dad built the equipment to make it, and we’ve made it ever since,” Kagy says. “It’s a great product for sports bars.”

A to Z has also capitalized on barbecue’s popularity with several products, including Adam’s Rib, a formed-pork patty made with barbecue seasoning.

The pizza patty and the Big T have been around so long partly because they are consistently produced.

“When you buy our products, you know you’re going to get what you got the last time,” Kagy says. “It’s consistent.”

Creativity extends to packaging, and Seward says Country Gold Foods is now using CO2 pads from Fresh-Pads to provide an extended shelf-life by slowing bacteria growth and maximizing freshness. The benefits are improved food safety, less spoilage and reduced shrinkage, which results in more sales and profits. The CO2 pad uses time-release technology, which gives off fresh CO2 in the package for an entire week, Seward explains.

Creativity also extends to a way a company does business.

“We try to be smart in our purchasing of raw materials,” Cecala says. “We try to contract out front with our suppliers and customers.”

Cecala says he tries to convince his customers that they’re better off contracting out for a longer period of time to maintain predictable prices. He asks these customers, “Do you want to play the game of week-to-week pricing and compare vendors based on who has the lowest pricing of the week, or do you want to have a longer-term period where you know you can set a menu price?”

There are obvious risks and rewards with contracting out, Cecala explains. “But we think in the end that allows us to have a much better relationship with our customers that is built on trust,” he adds. “If we’re helping our customers make money, and they are satisfied with the program we have put together, then pricing is insignificant.”

The ‘smart factor’

Another trend has to do with customers’ personalities: They are smarter.

Cecala believes Buedel’s customers and consumers are smarter because they are more educated than ever. Hence, they are more demanding.

“The prevalence of information that is easily accessible on your [smartphone] to gain the knowledge about what is happening in the market and the options that are available is much more accessible today than it ever has been,” Cecala says. “So, customers have more information accessible to them, which makes them more educated and ask tougher questions.”

Cecala has no problem with educated customers. “If they’re asking good questions and you have good answers for them, that makes for a good relationship and you can earn their business,” he adds.

Aylward is a freelance writer from Medina, Ohio.